SWANTON – A group of locals steered by a longtime area physician have organized a series of workshops for the coming months to help community members better understand addiction.
Dr. Ed Haak, the physician behind the upcoming community addiction forums, told the Messenger recently he hopes his workshops, scheduled every other Tuesday between February and June, help people better understand addiction as a disease.
“I’m asking people to take the box off the shelf and examine it again,” Haak said. “If we can get society to not think of people as the ‘addict’... but the ‘patient,’ and if I can help people understand the disease and the transitions that happen in the body... then that’s all great.”
For Haak, addressing addiction can be personal.
Haak, now a consultant with the state’s Agency of Human Services, is maybe best known in the area as the former medical director for Northwestern Medical Center’s emergency department and the former medical director for the Northern Tier Center for Health (NOTCH), with whom he helped establish an opioid treatment clinic in Swanton.
Haak has a more personal connection to dealing with addiction, though. When he met with the Messenger earlier this week, Haak shared he was himself recovering from addiction, now five years sober after struggling with a years-long bout with alcoholism.
“For a number of reasons – some I’m still trying to figure out – I developed an addiction,” Haak said. “I was going through a lot of stress with the hospital, from my job and my relationships, and I went from experimenting with drugs from my upbringing and college to getting more involved with alcohol.”
It was a personal connection the doctor said he would tap when connecting with patients in recovery and an experience that directly informed the curriculum Haak developed for his patients and adapted for his upcoming workshops.
It was also a personal connection Haak said he hoped he could tap into when he introduces these addiction forums later this month.
Haak said he will be sharing his own history with addiction and recovery with attendees, something he said he hopes will show that “this could happen to anybody.” “For some of us, it did happen,” Haak added as an aside.
Follow-up forums will touch on other aspects of addiction, from the history of opioid use to the biological effects of addiction on the brain.
While Haak said the forums would address addiction overall, much of the focus would be on opioid addiction, a decision made in light of the ongoing opioid epidemic that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has killed more than 700,000 Americans since 1997.
As a part of that focus, attendees following those forums will follow the life of a hypothetical patient struggling with opioid addiction. Throughout the forums, those attending will receive updates on “Michael Test,” a former high school football hero and military veteran who gradually develops an addiction following an initial painkiller prescription.
While the names evoked in Michael’s story might be imaginary, Haak said the events in his life mirror those of many of Haak’s former patients. “This isn’t a dreamed up person, this is a real, potential patient,” Haak said. “That is my story of who I’ve dealt with in my practice.”
“People will actually see and become a patient,” Haak continued. “By the time we’re done with this workshop, you’re going to have this biography of someone pretty realistic... and I’m hoping by presenting this with the community over time, they’re going to realize, ‘they’re not much more different than me.’”
As a part of the forums’ overall programming, attendees will also have a chance to learn how to administer naloxone, a medication better known as Narcan that is used to treat the symptoms of opioid overdoses.
Narcan kits will also be available during forums.
“If we can get out 200, 300, 400 overdose kits over the period of the workshops, and that saves one person, then I think we’ve been successful,” Haak said.
As part of these workshops, community members will also be asked to discuss issues that made recovery a challenge in places like Franklin and Grand Isle counties, like the lack of transportation and services that can come with small town life, and brainstorm possible responses.
Those grassroots, according to Haak, were one of the most important parts of the workshops.
“Everything is more solid, more thought out, more molded to the community that’s there,” Haak said. “And if you build on top of that foundation, I think you have a much stronger and sturdier program.”
For those who could not attend the regularly scheduled forums, Haak said recordings would be available online at www.drhaakworkshops.com, as would other updates allowing latecomers to the forums and those who may miss a workshop or two to stay caught up.
According to Haak, it was important that these workshops came as a community effort and came as a program that could be repurposed in other communities struggling with the same addiction crises that Franklin and Grand Isle counties have seen in the last decade.
Haak said he hoped, through this initial run of forums, to pilot a program with “a structure that a community could use not to reinvent the wheel, but to use as a stepping stone.”
Haak said the program had few sponsors at the moment, with much of the funding coming courtesy of the doctor himself and the work behind it coming from a team of community members recruited by Haak.
According to Haak, that team, ranging from local recovery specialists to Franklin County regulars tapped for their camera and writing skills, was optimistic about those workshops.
Haak appeared to share in their optimism.
“I think this will be a very good program,” Haak said with a smile.
The first community addiction workshop is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Feb. 18.
All workshops will take place at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Swanton.
Editor’s Note: Messenger Sports Editor Ruthie Laroche helped organize Haak’s community addiction forums.